Thursday, July 14, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Legend Of Tarzan

Welcome to Summer Slaughter 2016, in which the major studios'  big budget tentpole pictures keep crashing and burning, burying the cineplex with their bloated corpses. This week's victim: The Legend Of Tarzan.

The Legend Of Tarzan was written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, and directed by David Yates.

Cozad's only previous writing credit was Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Brewer previously wrote Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan (both of which he also directed). Yates directed Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 & 2. He's also currently working on Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, which not surprisingly, takes place in the Potter-verse. I'm starting to think Yates has Potter fever.

If you go into this film expecting a typical Tarzan adventure, you may be in for a disappointment. This one takes place well after he's hung up his loincloth and retired. This particular version of the character has to be persuaded to leave the comforts of civilization and return to the jungle. In fact he doesn't actually "become" Tarzan again until somewhere around the halfway point of the film! 

I get that the filmmakers wanted to try something different with the whole Tarzan concept, but this seems like an odd take on the story.

Once Tarzan finally appears onscreen again, the film devolves into a the standard "rescue Jane and defeat the bad guy" plot that we've seen a hundred times before. 

This by-the-numbers plotting puzzles me. The later Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs were full of fantastical sci-fi concepts. In nearly every book, Tarzan would stumble across Atlantians, dinosaurs, talking apes and dozens of lost cities! Why no one's ever tried filming any of those stories, I have no idea, especially now that CGI has made it possible to film pretty much anything. Maybe these sci-fi concepts are the shot in the arm that the worn out Tarzan concept needs.

Supposedly the producers considered casting Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps as Tarzan. I assume this was a nod to actor Johnny Weissmuller, who played the character in the 1930s and 1940s, and was also a competitive swimmer. 

Those plans were scrapped though, when the creators saw Phelps host Saturday Night Live, and realized he had little or no screen presence or acting abilities. Haw!

So far the movie's tanking at the box office, grossing just $90 million against its whopping $180 million budget. Wow, $180 million? I guess those CGI apes ain't cheap! Based on its performance, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a sequel.


The Plot:
The film begins with the dreaded Expository Captions, telling us that due to the Berlin Conference of 1884, the African Congo has been divided between Belgium and the UK (England, not the University of Kentucky). The Belgian government nearly bankrupts itself building a national railroad in the Congo. In order to save his country from financial ruin, King Leopold II sends Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz) to the Congo to procure the fabled diamonds of Opar and bring them back to Belgium. Ah, nothing says "adventure and excitement" like 19th Century economics and politics!

Rom leads an expedition into Opar to find the diamonds. Unfortunately everyone but Rom is ambushed and slaughtered by Chief Mbonga, a local tribal chief. Mbonga agrees to give all the diamonds to Rom if he delivers his enemy Tarzan to him. Annnnd we now have the setup for the movie. 

John Clayton III, aka Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan (played by Alexander Skarsgard), has given up his loincloth and returned to England with his wife Jane Porter. Yep, that's right, this movie takes place years after all of Tarzan's fabled adventures. King Leopold encourages him to visit the Congo and report on Belgium's progress there. Tarzan politely declines. Let's hear it for Tarzan, Lord Of The Jungle, Ladies and Gentlemen!

An American named George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson) urges Tarzan to go, as he suspects the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese populace, and wants him to confirm his suspicions. He doesn't want to go, as he's put his Tarzan days behind him and is comfortable with civilized society. Tarzan, Ladies and Gentlemen! Eventually his curiosity gets the better of him, and Tarzan accepts Williams' invitation. Jane (played by Margot Robbie) demands to come along with him. Tarzan initially forbids her to go, but eventually reconsiders. 

Tarzan, Jane and Williams arrive in the Congo. There they're welcomed by a friendly tribe they lived with years ago, who sing the praises of "The Legend Of Tarzan." Houston, we have a title! Unfortunately Rom and his men invade the tribe and capture everyone, including Tarzan and Jane. Rom kills the tribal leader and sets fire to the village. In the confusion, Tarzan, who's been hogtied by Rom, manages to escape. So how does the Lord Of The Jungle escape? By knocking out the bad guys with his fists? Calling on jungle animals for friends? Swinging away on a vine? Nope, he escapes by rolling down a steep hill (?). Ladies and Gentlemen, it's the amazing Tarzan! Rom takes Jane and many of the tribe members prisoner on his boat, and sails upriver with them.

Williams finds Tarzan and frees them. Tarzan, Williams and the remaining tribesmen set out to rescue Jane by commandeering a Belgian military train that's transporting Congolese slaves. They free the slaves and discover that Rom intends to use the Diamonds of Opar to fund a massive army that will subdue the Congo and mine its wealth for King Leopold.

During all these happenings, Tarzan occasionally takes time out for meaningful flashbacks to explain his origin story. We see John Clayton II and his wife Alice shipwrecked along the African coast. After Alice gives birth to John III, she up and dies. John III is killed by savage Mangani, a type of gorilla found in Edgar Rice Burrough's works. The now orphaned Baby John is taken in by a female gorilla named Kala, who raises him as her own, along with her own son Akut. John is renamed Tarzan (by the apes?) and adapts to life in the jungle. He later meets American Jane Porter, and falls in love with her. Years later Kala is killed by a young hunter. Tarzan kills the hunter, unaware he was the sun of Chief Mbonga. 

Tarzan encounters his "brother" Akut, who now considered him a deserter. Tarzan challenges Akut to a fight, which he loses. Tarzan, Ladies and Gentlemen! Meanwhile, Jane escapes from Rom's boat, but is immediately recaptured. Jane, Rom and his men are then surrounded by apes. Rom takes Jane back to his boat as his men slaughter the apes.

Tarzan and Williams are then confronted by Chief Mbonga and his tribe. Mgonga challenges Tarzan to combat, intending to kill him for murdering his son. Tarzan says he killed the boy because he killed his adoptive mother Kala. Eventually the two realize they both made a tragic mistake and stop fighting. It's all just slightly less silly than finding out their mothers are both named "Martha."

Rom arrives in Boma with the diamonds. Tarzan calls upon his jungle friends to stampede the camp, distracting the soldiers so he can rescue Jane. Rom tries to escape in his boat, but Williams shoots it up and causes it to sink. Rom traps Tarzan on the sinking boat with his indestructible rosary necklace. It's Tarzan, Ladies and Gentlemen! Tarzan finally manages to escape the boat, and Rom is eaten by crocodiles.

Williams returns to England, where he offers proof exposing King Leopold's slave trade in the Congo. A year later, Tarzan and Jane are living back in Africa, and welcome their first child.

• Welp, if nothing else, after seeing this film I'm now all caught up on 19th Century Belgian economics and politics.

Those opening captions outlining the history of Belgium reminded me for all the world of The Phantom Menace and its "trade route disputes." When are filmmakers going to learn that people don't go to the cineplex for an econ lecture?

• Believe it or not, both George Washington Williams and Leon Rom were both real people! 

Williams really did travel to King Leopold II's Congo Free State. Shocked by what he saw, and wrote a letter to the King, detailing the horrendous treatment of the region's inhabitants, that spurred a public outcry against the regime.

Rom was a real Belgium army officer, who was assigned to the Congo. He was known for his brutality, supposedly decorating his garden with the severed heads of various Congolese. What a charming man.

• At the beginning of the film, George Washington Williams mocks John Clayton III by calling him "Lord Of The Jungle" and saying, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." 

Wow. That's definitely an anachronism there. In fact, that famous line never appeared in any of the Tarzan books, nor in the Johnny Weissmuller film series which ran from 1932 to 1948. Instead the line came from an interview with Weissmuller in a 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine, in which he said, "I didn't have to act in Tarzan The Ape Man— Just said, 'Me Tarzan, you Jane."

• Although I'm not a fan of the film's take on a retired Tarzan, I did like that we didn't have to sit through an entire tedious origin film. We get bits and pieces of Tarzan's beginning through a series of flashbacks, telling us only what we need to know.

• Every time bad guy Leon Rom appeared onscreen in his white suit and fedora, it was all I could do to keep from saying, "Dr. Jones. Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away."

In fact at one point, Rom invites the captive Jane to dine with him in his private room, exactly like Belloq and Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. She even tries to steal a knife and is thwarted when he notices!

Christoph Waltz stars as Rom, and he plays him exactly as he has every other over-the-top villain in every film he's been in the past ten years. Hey, stick with what works for you, I suppose.

By the way, see the heavily bearded man at the right of the screen, just behind Waltz? That's Rom's right hand man Major Kerckhover. He's played by our old friend Casper Crump, who starred as immortal tyrant Vandal Savage in Season 1 of Legends Of Tomorrow.

Oddly enough Crump is much more energetic here as he ever was as Savage, which pisses me off a bit. I just thought he was a bad actor, but apparently he can emote when he feels like it. 

One last thing— "Casper Crump" would be a perfect name for a comic book character!

• Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson previously worked together in Django Unchained.

• The real star of the film is actor Alexander Skarsgard's impressive abs. 

When we first meet Tarzan, he's left the jungle and has been living in his ancestral home in England for a decade. Unless Greystoke Manor has an extensive gym inside it, there's no way in hell Tarzan would have been able to keep that physique all this time. He'd have started going to pot the minute he returned to civilization!

• There are many out there who are denouncing the film as yet another example of the "White Savior" trope, in which black people are powerless to fend for themselves and need the help of a white man to save them. Sigh…

First of all, the various tribes Tarzan encounters seemed pretty darned capable to me. He even sends a group of them on a critical mission at one point. Granted he definitely helps the tribes, but they seemed like they could have solved their problems on their own without him.

And Chief Mbonga's tribe, armed only with knives and spears, wipes out Rom's entire squad of Belgian soldiers, completely without Tarzan's help.

Secondly, must we drag race into every single aspect of our daily lives? Can I please just watch a goddamned adventure movie without being made to feel guilty because I'm white?

• As the film opens it seems like is going to be a kick-ass heroine whose ever bit as able as her jungle lord husband. Alas, in no time at all she's captured and becomes the standard damsel in distress.

• The famous Tarzan yell is in the film, although we only hear it from afar, and never see him actually utter it. It's been changed for modern jaded audiences of course, and is less a yodel now and more a guttural growl. 

The Legend Of Tarzan attempts a new take on the material by giving us a sensitive, reluctant and retired Tarzan, but doesn't quite succeed. Maybe they need to start adapting some of Tarzan's wilder sci-fi adventures and give the "rescuing Jane" plot a rest. I give it a C.

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